Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991, Nicholas Meyer)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A delicate peace negotiation has begun between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The Enterprise is sent to collect the Klingon Chancellor, but when he’s assassinated the blame falls on Captain Kirk…

We don’t get the full “Space, the final frontier…” narration, but Kirk paraphrases it at the end of the film when he says the new Enterprise crew will, “continue the voyages we have begun and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man – where no one – has gone before.”

Regulars: At the start, Kirk is called to a secret meeting of Federation bigwigs, while he and his crew are due to stand down in three months. He doesn’t trust the Klingons and can’t forgive them for his son’s death three films earlier. After Gorkon’s murder, Kirk is arrested, put on trial and sent to a Klingon penal colony. At that special meeting, Spock reveals he is the Federation’s envoy and has been seeking peace with the Klingons – Kirk’s not happy about this. During the mission, Spock acts as mentor to Vulcan officer Valeris, grooming her to be his replacement. He gets to play Poirot after the assassination, putting the clues together to work out what happened (or should I say Sherlock, given that he quotes the maxim about eliminating the impossible?). He’s indignant when he realises Valeris is a traitor. When the Klingons are on board, McCoy toasts them during the meal, then later beams aboard their ship to help with casualties (a rare scene of Bones being a doctor) but is arrested and convicted of the assassination. Sulu is not part of the Enterprise crew any more – he’s now a captain and, for three years, has been in command of the USS Excelsior. The ship witnesses the explosion of the Klingon moon that kick-starts the plot, then later Sulu disobeys orders in order to help Kirk. (Janice Rand from the TV show and some early movies is one of the Excelsior’s crewmembers.) Chekov gets a hangover after the meal with the Klingons, then later finds the blood that proves the killers are aboard the Enterprise. Uhura is disgusted by the Klingons’ eating habits, invents static to explain why the crew are ignoring messages from HQ, and suggests using the ship’s new equipment to detect a cloaked ship. Scotty has just bought a boat for his retirement, conspires to pretend the Enterprise is damaged so they can avoid going home, and shoots the assassin at the end before he can kill Valeris.

Guests: The Klingon chancellor, Gorkon, is played by David Warner, who was also in the previous film. Mark Lenard returns briefly as Sarek. Valeris is played by Kim Cattrall – post-Porkies/Police Academy/Mannequin, pre-Sex and the City. The part was originally meant to be Saavik, last seen in The Voyage Home, but then rewritten as another Vulcan. Christopher Plummer hams it up entertainingly as Shakespeare-loving Klingon provocateur Chang. Iman plays shape-changing prisoner Martia. Michael Dorn, who was by now a regular in Star Trek: The Next Generation, appears as a lawyer at Kirk and McCoy’s trial: he’s meant to be his Next Gen character’s ancestor, it seems.

Best bits:

* Sulu’s got his own ship!

* The energy wave hitting the Excelsior.

* Spock vouching for Kirk.

* Valeris denies she’s ‘proud’ that she graduated at the top of her class. “She’s a Vulcan all right,” quips McCoy.

* The dinner scene – the Klingons unsure of etiquette, everyone uneasy, tension constantly under the surface.

* The Klingon ship losing its artificial gravity, and the Klingon blood floating around.

* McCoy passionately trying to save Gorkon’s life.

* The Federation president’s office – which is in Paris, judging by the backdrop visible out of the window – is decorated with some lovely knickknacks: an Art Deco lamp, an ornate desk, etc.

* Valeris’s story about the origin of the word sabotage.

* The harshly lit show trial (and its cinematic trick for getting everyone speaking English).

* During the trial, McCoy is asked what his current medical status is. “Aside from a touch of arthritis, I’d say pretty good,” he jokes, momentarily enjoying the laughter from the galleries.

* Prison planet Rura Penthe has guard dogs with massive saber-toothed mouths (domestic dogs wearing masks, in other words).

* The prison has a huge variety of aliens – an attempt to out-cantina-scene Star Wars’s catina scene?

* Spock: “If I know the captain, by this time he is deep into planning his escape.” Cut to: Kirk being punching during a prison brawl.

* Christian Slater’s cameo as s Starfleet crewmember. (His mum was the movie’s casting director.)

* The look on Kirk’s face when he realises a big, ugly monster is actually Martia.

* Chekov triumphantly announcing that crewman Dax is the murderer… then Spock pointing out that Dax’s webbed feet mean he can’t have wore the incriminating boots. (Has this guy ever been ‘retconned’ as an early incarnation of Dax from Deep Space Nine, I wonder?)

* The locations used for the snow-covered surface of Rura Penthe.

* The crew anxiously searching through Klingon translation guides and dictionaries as they ineptly reply to a listening post’s radio message.

* Martia shape-changes into Kirk, so William Shatner gets to do a scene with himself. “Can’t believe I kissed you!” “Must have been your lifelong ambition!”

* Kirk and McCoy being beamed to safety *just* before the Klingon commander is about to reveal who framed them. (“Son of a –”)

* Valeris is a traitor!

* Spock’s forced mind-meld with Valeris is very nasty (we’re getting into rape-metaphor territory here, right?).

* Kirk and Spock’s quiet discussion about age, regrets, mistakes and what it means to be human.

* When the crew are ordered to return to space dock so the Enterprise can be decommissioned, Spock says, “If I were human, I believe my response would be ‘Go to hell.’” Chekov then asks Kirk for a heading. Smiling, the captain quotes Peter Pan: “Second star to the right and straight on till morning.”

TV tie-in: For Star Trek’s 30th anniversary in 1996, Star Trek: Voyager produced an episode called Flashback. It restaged some of The Undiscovered Country’s scenes aboard the Excelsior and filmed new material around them. Sulu and Rand popped up for cameos. Fun on a fan-boy level, it’s a pretty tatty piece of drama.

Review: We geeks tend to revere The Wrath of Khan, but this is equally as impressive. Both films were directed by Nicholas Meyer, surely no coincidence. The Undiscovered Country has a very smartly structured plot – it zips along and builds to a terrific climax. Along the way, we get a mystery element, plenty of character and lots of action. At the heart of it is a Cold War analogy with the Klingons as the decaying, bankrupt, defeated USSR. It was a brave move, therefore, to make our regulars (representing the USA, in effect) so prejudiced. Early on, Kirk says of the Klingons, “They’re animals… Don’t believe them, don’t trust them… Let them die.” When the diplomatic party is invited aboard the Enterprise, Chekov has the line “Guess who’s coming to dinner…” (racially loaded dialogue originally given to Uhura, but the actress refused to say it). Kirk implies his guests are analogous to the Nazis. And there are crewmembers who say Klingons all look alike. But by being so blunt, the film has an edge – and a dramatic complexity. The regulars have a moral journey, rather than being stuck in their opinions. There’s also a general sense that this is the end (not for the first time in this run of films, it has to be said). There’s talk of retirement for the characters and the ship being decommissioned. The movie ends with a postmodern flourish: the signatures of the seven main regulars unfold on screen one at a time. Next time, we’ll have a whole new crew to get to know.

Ten dogs of war out of 10.

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